Tom Hendrix, 79, runs his calloused hand along a mile-long rock wall built in northwest Alabama in memory of Te-lah-nay, a Yuchi Indian woman he never met but who has become the bedrock of his life.
“This is a special place,” Hendrix says in a hushed tone as he walks his wooded property near Waterloo, Ala. (pop. 201). “It’s a holy place.”
Hendrix built the wall as a tribute to his great-great-grandmother, who was forced from the Tennessee River area of northwest Alabama and relocated to present-day Oklahoma under the Indian Removal Act signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830. Orphaned by soldiers, Te-lah-nay and her sister were among an estimated 46,000 to 60,000 American Indians who traveled by foot or wagon along the 1,000-mile route known as the Trail of Tears.
According to family lore, Te-lah-nay did not stay long at her new home, however. After only one winter on the reservation, she longed to listen again to the songs of the river and began a five-year journey back to her homeland.
“She said, ‘My sister, Whana-le, is like a wildflower. She can grow anywhere. I cannot. If I stay here, I’ll die,’” says Hendrix about his ancestor’s desire to return to Alabama.
About 16 to 18 years old at the time, she endured storms, physical hardships and the risk of being captured or killed on the exhausting and lonely trek.
“There’s a stone in the wall for every step she made, theoretically,” says Hendrix, who estimates he has laid about 8.5 million pounds of rock in tribute to Te-lah-nay, which means Woman with Dancing Eyes.
The young woman eventually reached the banks of the Tennessee River and settled 10 miles north of Florence, Ala. She married Jonathan Levi Hipp, a white man, and they had three children before Te-lah-nay died at a young age.
“Grandmother said she walked herself to death,” says Hendrix, who as a youngster heard stories about Te-lah-nay from his paternal grandmother.
The idea to honor his great-great-grandmother came after Hendrix retired in 1983 as a die caster for a car manufacturer. Attending a multi-tribal powwow in Lebanon, Tenn., he shared Te-lah-nay’s story with an elderly Yuchi woman who told him that only stones remain after people die. “We honor our ancestors with stones,” she told him.
So one rock at a time, Hendrix began collecting stones on his five-acre tract near his home. Most days at 5 a.m. for nearly three decades, he drove his pickup truck nine miles to the Tennessee River in search of slabs of limestone and sandstone, as well as fieldstones discarded by farmers. Using no particular design plan, he stacked the stones without applying mortar or dirt.
“I would just put a stone somewhere, and if it rolled down and stopped, I’d decide it didn’t want to be up there,” he says. “If it stayed, it was supposed to be there.”
Hendrix completed the rock wall last spring. “I wore out three trucks, 22 wheelbarrows, 3,700 pairs of gloves, three dogs and one old man,” he says with a smile.
The wall is in two sections. One side represents Te-lah-nay’s trek to Oklahoma, the other her journey home. The structure is irregular, ranging from 3 to 5 feet high and 6 to 18 feet wide. After all, her journey wasn’t straight, Hendrix says.
Anchoring the wall is a prayer circle where Hendrix prays most every morning. It features four tiers that represent birth, life, death and rebirth.
In 2000, Hendrix published a book about his ancestor’s journey, “If the Legends Fade,” prompting people from around the world to visit Te-lah-nay’s wall. Some bring rocks and fossils to place on the structure. The wall now contains stones from 127 nations, territories and islands.
“He did an amazing job,” says Preston Wynn, 43, of Nashville, Tenn., after visiting the wall with a motorcycle group. “You have to be dedicated, for sure. You can just feel the meaning in the wall.”
Dale Evans, 50, of Lutts, Tenn., wondered about the stories behind each stone during her visit. “Mr. Hendrix can tell you stories, but there are stories inside these rocks, too,” she says.
Hendrix gladly shares stories about the rocks and of Te-lah-nay with anyone who will listen.
“If the legends fade,” he says, “who will teach the children?”